Dr. Dirk t. D. Held Department of Classics Connecticut College New London CT 06320 USA
Europe during and after the Enlightenment was transformed by the dynamics of modernity driving social, political, and economic change.
Modernity’s dislocations could be seen in the bifurcations and antagonisms noted by the early Romantics: antagonisms of nature and culture, life and intellect, individual and citizen. In light of such radical discontinuities with the past there is some irony in the fact that the assessment and articulations of the new conditions often drew on a dialogic relation with antiquity, in Germany specifically with Greek antiquity.
Germany in the early nineteenth century was gdpped by what Friedrich Paulsen, historian of the German universities, called ‘Griechenenthusiasmus,’ a kind of Hellenic madness whose effects are evinced in the title ofE.M. Butler’s well known book The Tyranny of Greece over Germany.
This is not the occasion to discuss the reasons underlying the attraction to Greece experienced at this time not only in Germany but elsewhere in Europe. Different nations valued different things about classical antiquity, and their historical discourse regarding Greece and Rome, including the preference for one over the other, developed in response to national
priorities. As one scholar notes: ‘No formula can sum up, no summary do justice to the
perpetual revolution that was the nineteenth century’s contact with the Greeks.’1
Within the restricted limits of this paper my purpose is twofold. First, to note the
significance of the ‘contact with the Greeks’ for the foundation of the University of Berlin
and for the political and cultural objectives assigned to it which transcended the
humanistic curriculum. Secondly, I want to illustrate how the process of inquiry (centered
in the universities) that was used to advance these objectives ultimately devitalized their
fulfillment and rendered problematic the meaning of the classical past, a legacy which
still confronts us today.
To understand the influence of Hellenism we must take note of German national
priorities after the Napoleonic conquest and the response to them~by the. great educational
minister and founder of the University of Berlin, Wilhelm von Humboldt. Hetlwughtthat
proper study of the Hellenic past would intensify the emerging German national
consciousness and reconcile it to the changes brought by modernity. Humboldt hoped
that immersion in Greek culture would bring about national integration at the same time
that it distinguished Germany from French culture which was rooted in the Roman
tradition.2 The vehicle for this task was to be the university. Growing industrialization
and the new mercantile state threatened disruption of the harmony of the autonomous
individual, and Humboldt envisioned an ideal totality of human life which was free from
instrumentalist ends. He attempted to introduce the Greek ideal into the new curriculum
of the university not simply as a scholarly subject but for the promulgation of cultural and
intellectual harmony in those taking up the subject. The intellectual realization of this
would come from study of the Greeks who had attained this type of existence for
themselves} To Humboldt, the German people were uniquely like the ancient Greeks
and thus, more than any others, would benefit from an intense exposure to their culture.
He believed that the study of antiquity, specifically what men had been like in ancient
Greece, would produce a new kind of society for Germany.4 Her citizens would benefit
from the study of what the Greeks were really like because such study would reveal
"’some sort of idea" of a human perfection wherein maximum many-sidedness was …
integrated into a harmonious whole.’5
As education minister he recruited to this endeavor as adviser on educational
policy his friend, the great classical scholar Friedrich Wolf, in whom he saw a man who
‘knew how this knowledge [of classical antiquity] should be applied so as to enhance the
"Bildung" of the entire nation.’6 Wolf was in accord with Humboldt’s claim in his 1793
essay on the study of antiquity that
The study of the characteristics of Greek culture is especially beneficial in an
epoch when, for countless reasons, attention is more focused on masses of men
than on individuals, more on external values and uses than on inner worth and
enjoyment, and when a high and variegated culture has deviated very far from the
earlier simplicity.? (TO BE CONTINUED)
I. Anthony Grafton, ‘Germany and the West 1830-1900,’ in K.J. Dover, edit., Perceptions of the Ancient Greeks, London: Blackwell, 1992, p. 243.
2. U. PreuBe, Humanismus und Gesellschaft, New York & Bern, 1998, p. 6.
3 . Horst Siebert, ‘Humboldt und die Reform des Bildungswesen’, in Joachim H. Knoll & Horst Siebert, Wilhelm von Humboldt: Politiker und Padagoge, (Verlag Rudolf Miller) Bad Godesberg, 1967, p. 36.
4. Ute PreuBe, Humanismus und Gesellschaft, New York & Bern, 1998, p. 7, describes the conviction ‘daB der am besten gebildete Burger auch der beste Staatsburger sei, ja, daB umgekehrt die Verfassung des Staates eine Prufung am so gebildeten Burger standhalten muBte.’
5. Paul R. Sweet; Wilhelm von Humboldt. A Biography, 2 vols, Columbus, Ohio (Ohio State University Press), 1978, 1980; vol. 1, p. 127
6. Paul R. Sweet; Wilhelm von Humboldt. A Biography, 2 vols., Columbus, Ohio (Ohio State University Press), 1978, 1980; vol. 2, p. 25.